A Butterfly, Still Alive, Safely Pinned to the Wall

Humbert Humbert loved Lolita the way Nabokov loved butterflies: as something fragile that can be hunted

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

I first read Vladimir Nabokov’s 1955 novel Lolita standing at the counter of the café where I worked, absently shortchanging customers while dog-earing the thin pages. At eighteen, I was still stumbling through the flushed humiliation of female sexuality, still a little startled by the sudden onslaught of attention gained somewhere between childhood and adulthood. Online, I read interpretations of the novel. Some said it was about old Europe’s sordid infatuation with the carefree youth of America’s rolling prairies. Others suggested that the book is a love letter to the English language, and the plot is secondary to the lyrical genius. I was flummoxed and slightly amused by these readings, which felt singularly male. To me, the genius of Lolita is far more universal than cultural and linguistic barriers: it is the story of one man’s love of control, of the patriarchal obsession with power.

Later, I learned of Nabokov’s personal history, and something in it stirred my attention. While Humbert’s characteristic pedophilia was unique to his psychology, Nabokov himself was not a stranger to the violent passion rampant in his own prose. Humbert’s mania was directed toward little girls; Nabokov’s obsession was butterflies.

Humbert’s mania was directed toward little girls; Nabokov’s obsession was butterflies.

In addition to being a brilliant writer and professor of literature, Nabokov was a lauded lepidopterist and author of 22 scientific papers. His dual passions for butterflies and literature were constantly vying for his time and attention. During a lecture on literary transformation at Cornell University, Nabokov suddenly became transfixed with the metamorphosis of a caterpillar, hijacking his own class to narrate the pupal emergence. He devoted years to the art of collecting and identifying specimens, consumed with the need to find a new species, a goal that he eventually accomplished. After years of collecting, Nabokov learned to use a microscope in a lab, where he spent hours poring over scaly samples of butterfly genitalia. Every summer he drove across the U.S. in search of his beloved samples. Lolita was written during one such road trip, on a series of index cards from the passenger seat of his Olds, during sleepless nights in sticky motel beds, a ceiling fan chopping at the listless air.

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

During his life, the author vehemently denied that his butterfly obsession had any influence on his literary work; and yet, the dynamic between Humbert and Lolita bears a striking resemblance to that of scientist and subject. In her 1960 article titled “Lolita Lepidoptera,” Diana Butler claims that “Nabokov has transposed his passion for butterflies onto his hero’s passion for nymphets.” Specifically, she draws parallels between Lolita and Nabokov’s scientific legacy, the species he discovered and named Lycaeides sublivens. Butler observes that while most narrators would praise the hair or breasts of their beloved, Humbert repeatedly focuses on Lolita’s golden-brown limbs, which are slender and covered in soft down. The same description could be applied to butterflies, and Lycaeides sublivens in particular, which display a brown and white pattern on their downy wings. Most notably, Humbert coins the term “nymphet” to categorize the type of girl-child that drives an old pervert mad with desire. A nymph is defined as “a larva of an insect with incomplete metamorphosis.” This definition captures the true tragedy of Lolita: she is trapped in the tortured eternity of pubescence. Humbert’s limited narration robs her of an early childhood and an adulthood, leaving her suspended forever in a liminal space, her transformation incomplete and crystalline in our collective memory.

In his memoir, Speak, Memory, Nabokov describes the childhood thrill of butterfly hunting. The descriptions of his subjects are strikingly poetic and sensual, a combination we don’t usually associate with insects: “As it probed the inclined flower from which it hung, its powdery body slightly bent, it kept restlessly jerking its great wings, and my desire for it was one of the most intense I have ever experienced.” Nabokov, only seven at the time, locks the object of his desire in his wardrobe overnight, only to witness the creature be released by the maid the following morning.

Speak, Memory by Vladimir Nabokov

Like many forms of love, entomology is not immune to violence. Nabokov refers to his fascination as his “demon,” a term used by Humbert as well. While undergoing an operation, Nabokov has an ether dream of a moth being pinned to a cork board. In rapturous yet clinical detail, he evokes “the subsiding spasms of its body; the satisfying crackle produced by the pin penetrating the hard crust of its thorax; the careful insertion of the point of the pin in the cork-bottomed groove of the spreading board.” This image is reminiscent of the moment Humbert picks Dolores up from camp. Though she doesn’t know it yet, her mother is dead, and Humbert takes this opportunity to capture her. Humbert scans the camp office and lists his observations, casually running his eyes over, amongst other objects, “some gaudy moth or butterfly, still alive, safely pinned to the wall (‘nature study’).” Moths make another brief appearance in the headlights of Humbert’s car as he drives to Quilty’s house, his gun hot in his hand. I might expect a butterfly motif to represent ethereal beauty and transformation, and in some ways it does. But more than that, the butterfly appears as a small insect at the mercy of a trap, a victim of predatory desire, a receptacle for the unquenchable nature of demon lust.

Butler reports in meticulous detail the similarities between the language of butterfly-hunting and that of Lolita-hunting, suggesting that Dolores is named after the small town in Colorado beside which Nabokov discovered his species (which is also near the hospital in which Lolita finally makes her escape.) However, Butler fails to question the significance of this comparison. Scientific inquiry, like rape, requires the destruction of the subject, no matter how beloved it may be. Don’t be fooled by Nabokov’s vivid portrayals of his innocent childhood pastime of capturing butterflies: the thrill he describes is the thrill of finding an insect, catching it, killing it, and preserving it — like a voiceless character in a novel — until it’s trapped in its own husk of beauty and deprived of the right to wither and decay. Nabokov’s quest to find a new species may be scientific, but at heart it’s the classic journey of any imperialist: the need to lay claim to new land, to defile a virgin, to name or rename a creature who would otherwise be invisible, the same way Humbert erases Dolores and births Lolita.

Nabokov’s quest to find a new species may be scientific, but at heart it’s the classic journey of any imperialist: the need to lay claim to new land, to defile a virgin.

The love of a fragile thing is not, of course, reserved solely for lepidopterists and child molesters. Like Humbert’s infatuation with Lolita, I first fell in love with butterflies for nothing more than their beauty, the way sunlight streamed through their amber wings like tiny jeweled panels of stained glass. In college at the University of California in Santa Barbara, I took weekly walks to the grove where kaleidoscopes of monarch butterflies had traveled hundreds of miles to winter. After entire days spent basking in leafy sun puddles, I came home smelling like eucalyptus and sea-salted fog. Later, when this small preserve wasn’t enough, I took the train to Pismo Beach to visit them in the thousands, their crepe paper bodies folded against the trees like origami bouquets. I read about their annual migration from Canada to Mexico, and the super generation born to survive that winter odyssey. Loving a butterfly is easy. The monarch is the prom queen of the insect world, her aristocratic orange flutter instantly identifiable. Everyone wants to see her wave from the throne of her parade float. We stand on our tip toes to glimpse her benevolent smile, happy just to be in the presence of such grace and splendor. There’s no shame in this need for beauty and elegance.

Like any time you fall in love, the more I learned about monarch butterflies, the more I found their signature on the world around me. While dining at a restaurant, I caught a glimmer of sienna on the forearm of a waitress. The man I was on a date with saw it too. He grabbed her wrist to examine her tattoo, laughing apologetically at the way her forearm went limp, like a little boy searing an ant with a magnifying glass. In fact, I began to recognize their poised shape tattooed on the bodies of many women around me. I’d like to say butterflies have come to symbolize femininity for some deeper, mythological reason. But frankly, the world loves butterflies and women the same way Humbert loved Lo: because we all enjoy holding something pretty and desired in our hands, especially when we know we can clamp our fists shut and destroy this beauty with very little effort. Who amongst us hasn’t loved like this?

We all enjoy holding something desired in our hands, especially when we know we can clamp our fists shut and destroy this beauty.

I might have loved monarchs only for their fragile beauty if it hadn’t been for Elliot Rodger, the man who killed six people and injured fourteen others in Isla Vista during the final weeks of my senior year at UCSB. In videos and a manifesto, Rodger laid out his plan to slaughter all the women in a sorority house as punishment for rejecting him and denying him happiness. I didn’t watch his videos or read the news about the shootings — I didn’t need to. I was already familiar with the language and thinking behind this violence, because I’d lived among it. I never personally met the man who felt his virginity was reason to murder, but I did hear countless men call my female peers whores and sluts. I saw them grab women and laugh when their victims yelled or pushed them; I endured taunts and shoves when I protected my friends from groping hands; and I must have sat beside dozens of rapists in crowded lecture halls, men who remained anonymous yet shared Rodger’s belief that women are responsible for men’s happiness.

Elliot Rodger and the men who think like him might claim they love women, and in some twisted way they probably do. The urge to see a pretty specimen writhe on a corkboard is still a kind of love. But these men have not shared boxed wine and cried over Pride and Prejudice with the women of Santa Barbara. They’ve never eaten spoonfuls of cookie dough straight from the tube, or rifled through bundles of kale at farmer’s markets, or filled their bedroom with balloons and silly sticky notes on their birthdays. Those sorority girls who men call catty and shallow cried together, vomited together, bled and died together. They loved each other with their fluids and grit and ugliness. During my time amongst them, it was this that I came to appreciate the most: that beyond the sparkle of lip gloss and butterfly tattoos, there was a loyalty and a strength that go unrecognized, a ferocity and a brazen vulnerability far more poignant than beauty. I saw in them the shiver of insect magic, these small, invisible beings who carry entire ecosystems in their glittering wingspan. To one who thinks a monarch is pretty, their ragged wings look ruined. But to one who knows about their 2,000-mile journey and eight-month battle of survival, those tears are a sign not of frailty, but of fury and resilience.

As Humbert is captured by the police, he experiences for the first time the feeling of being prey rather than predator. He’s lost everything that matters to him, his demonic love and his freedom, and only after this loss can he accomplish true empathy. Humbert thinks back to a moment on a mountain pass when he looks down on a town swelling with the music of children’s laughter and realizes “that the hopelessly poignant thing was not Lolita’s absence from my side, but the absence of her voice from that concord.” But his epiphany comes too late. Lolita, now Dolly, dies shortly after Humbert witnesses her brief incarnation of adulthood, one in which she’s faded and drained of any charm and sarcasm she emitted as a girl. Dolly dies giving birth, the ultimate female act. Her daughter is born dead, inheriting the feminine legacy of silence borne by her mother and grandmother. Even after she’s grown, girlhood destroys Lolita.

Last February, I flew to Michoacan, Mexico to visit the mecca of lepidoptera, the pine-needle forests where hundreds of thousands of monarch butterflies migrate annually. Each fall the insects flutter southward from as far north as Canada, clustering atop the foggy mountaintops to await spring, when they’ll mate, lay their eggs, and die. Wheezing from the chest-crushing altitude, I followed little blurry premonitions of orange along the mountain path until I reached the preserve. Upon a first glance, the trees seemed burdened with a rusty fruit, but I recognized the bowed pride of pine trees thick with butterflies. Heavy bulbs of scales and claws hung in the thin breeze. I stood on a downward-facing slope and leaned my head upward to watch the tangerine-flecked current pass over me, and I heard their honeyed rustling, like hundreds of yellowed pages turning all at once. Without being told to, everyone spoke in whispers, breathless, hushed by the sanctity of the storm.

At the edge of the small crowd, a cluster of trees was roped off with a thin orange boundary. Park employees monitored the tourists to make sure they respected the sash. Immediately, I was overcome with the urge to duck beneath the flimsy rope and dart into the thicket of butterfly-lined trees. I recognized this instinct — a sensation I call butterfly ache. I imagine it’s the same crushing lust that haunted Humbert and Nabokov. It’s the hopeless desire to shed the confines of humanity and enter a new world, the desire to tear off one’s skin and sew it into wings. I suspect I will always have this hunger, and I don’t aim to quell it. But that day beneath the orange gossamer of monarch-filtered light, I learned a new love. I knew that by crossing that barrier I would crush their trembling bodies with my clumsy boots, and thereby ruin the very thing I most desired. Unfettered by the ego of discovery or ownership, I felt something more soaring than the old desire to consume. To stand on the shores of their world and bear witness: that was enough.

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